In praise of celery

The approach of fall always makes me want to cook. For one thing, it’s the high point of the harvest. For another, temperatures drop to a more reasonable, less humid level. What follows is the first of my fall culinary musings.

We have a friend in Virginia who is a very fine cook. She gives traditional Southern fare, like Brunswick stew, her own little twist, often lightening up the dish to suit more health-conscious diners but never sacrificing flavor or texture. I once asked her how she did it. Her reply was immediate and to the point.

“Celery,” she said, in her elegant Southern drawl. “It’s highly underrated.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Celery has long held a certain eminence in fine cuisine, irrespective of its welcome crunch in a Waldorf, potato, or chicken salad. The mirepoix, that French staple, is a fine dice of celery, carrots, and onion—a combination also used in the construction of many Italian soups and sauces. The Cajun cooking staple known as the Holy Trinity—a term I learned from Emeril Lagasse in the early days of the Food Network—is a fine dice of celery, onion, and green pepper. Spain and Germany have their own versions, which you can read about in a fascinating post by Lindsey Howald Patton on the Serious Eats blog. You’ll note that some of these combinations substitute celery root or use leek instead of onion. One could also easily trade the onion for shallots, for a more elegant flavor.

What set off this rather unlikely post was an article I found in my inbox not long ago, from the online magazine TASTE. It was all about celery, and it was surprisingly interesting. It made me want to head to an antique shop in search of a celery vase. Read the article here.

Celery and olives, sometimes with carrots, and at Thanksgiving and Christmas with raw fennel, were always on my parents’ table for special occasion dinners. Celery is in just about every soup that I make. Celery as a vegetable—as opposed to a base ingredient or crudité—is given much more respect in French cuisine. Any vintage cookbook will provide recipes. And, of course, so will our darling Julia Child.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just a note

It’s a surprisingly cool day for the end of August. Typically, we have summer weather right through September. But nothing about the weather seems typical now, least of all the great tragedy of Hurricane Harvey. Our hearts remain with the people of Texas today. We wish for your safety and the rapid return of bright, blue skies.  And—not to jump on the virtue bandwagon—we hope that many will find it in their hearts to help out in any way they can. 

Yarn on the farm

Dear knitting friends,
I love watching your fingers deftly move yarn over and under, around and through. I love that you are never “just sitting,” that even your leisure time is productive, and that every piece you turn out, right down to those dishcloths that last forever, is one-of-a-kind. I love the subtle click of the needles and watching the fat ball of yarn grow smaller and smaller, down to a single strand.

Whereas being in the presence of a chronic texter agitates me, in the company of a knitter I am serene. Knitting is cozy and old-fashioned—there’s a ball of comfort in every woolly skein.

My New England cousins knit and crochet, as did our aunties who have since passed. My BFF has been knitting elegant sweaters since we were in high school. My daughter-in-law’s mother knits for those in need.

My Aunt Lea taught me to knit when I was about 12. She tutored me patiently, through a loden green crew neck sweater—knit a row, purl a row, with a knit one-purl one ribbing. I did well enough, but a dropped stitch was my nemesis; I got my adolescent Italian up whenever I had to rip out a row and start over. Over the years, I made a hat or two and a few afghans, but I never tackled a sweater again. Hopefully, my demi-retired life will allow me the time to become a better knitter.

When my New Hampshire cousin visited recently, she was knitting the cutest socks. She told me that turning the heel was the “most exciting part” and with great enthusiasm showed me as the little puff of a heel gradually took shape. She asked if there were any nearby places to buy yarn that was “like the old days, when you could feel and smell the lanolin.” [I should point out that she knew by name the sheep who was responsible for her last sweater, and that when I introduced her to my knitting BFF, it was as if they shared a secret language.]

I wasn’t optimistic about finding a fresh-from-the-sheep yarn store here in Central Pennsylvania, but  I dug in and searched just in case. And guess what? I was wrong. Just half an hour away, we found a yarn shop on a terraced farm nestled in the woods, stocked mostly with yarn from its own fiber mill. There were goats and angora rabbits and other four-legged friends. We each bought enough of the “hodgepodge” yarn—the mill odds and ends from various animals— to make a scarf. I’ll share it with you when mine is done.

Our trip to Blue Mountain Farm and Fiber Mill and its yarn store, A Knitter’s Dream, from which you can order online, was another one of those serendipitous, “right under your nose” discoveries. Gifted, committed artisans are everywhere. these days.  What’s right under your nose?

 

 

Book club… the morning after

I read many different writers and genres. These days it is mostly, but not exclusively, fiction. Sometimes, the novels that earn the most critical acclaim fall flat with me because in my mind they are generally overproduced, or over reliant on artifice. I much prefer storytelling so tight and well crafted that it doesn’t need contrivance, storytelling that helps me, by subtle association, to understand who I am and where I came from.

I love beautifully expressed, poetic sentences; but I love honest irony, good humor, and even a little healthy cynicism just as much. I love characters I wish I would meet on the street, characters I know I will miss when the book ends. I love it when place itself is a character. I love it when a wonderfully imagined book inspires me to imagine in turn. I love it when a book makes me cry—not in a maudlin way, but because my heart has truly been touched, or because I see some small piece of myself or my history in what I am reading.

I didn’t even have a book club in my life until the last few years. Now that I do, I freely admit that I’m not the world’s most compliant member. My attendance is erratic—real life, as I am fond of saying, intervenes—and I am stubborn about my personal book queue. In fact, I’m probably just a tad elitist when it comes to the books I want to read and when I want to read them. That’s the eternal English major in me. If I have a book queued up that I’ve been dying to read, it will probably supplant most book club selections.

Book clubs take a fair amount of heat. I myself disparaged them for years, thinking I couldn’t possibly enjoy reading based on a group-prescribed agenda. But our book club is friendly and forgiving; we all contribute suggestions, and the monthly selection is pulled out of a hat. Nobody cares if you haven’t read the book, but most of us usually do.

Because reading for me has always been an “individual sport,” I never would have pictured myself liking a book club. Two years or so down the road, I’m grateful that I gave our book club a chance. At its best, it has forced me out of my queue into the wider world of other genres, other writers, other people’s preferences. At its best, it’s almost like being back in a favorite class again. The warmth of the members, of course, is not insignificant, and the patience of those who coaxed me to show up continues to be deeply appreciated.

Last night, after a lively and insightful discussion that in the end made me like the book I’d just read less than I thought I had, the question was raised as to whether we should switch to bimonthly meetings. The group’s response was an overwhelming NO. I was both surprised and delighted at the ensuing comments. That “no” wasn’t about the wine; it was about the books. Friends, there is hope.

 

Simple treasures: The best BLT ever

For a very brief time, Hubby and I owned a home in the triangle area of North Carolina. Although our plans to relocate there changed, we like to visit now and then. When we do, the one stop that’s always de rigeur is Merritt’s Store and Grill in Chapel Hill.

Apart from the fact that Merritt’s is a delightful, welcoming place, where both staff and customers always greet you with a smile, the truth is that it’s the home of the best darn BLT in the USA. Honest. With all the fancy restaurants in Chapel Hill, the only one that calls to us, every time, is Merritt’s.

I’m not sure what they do to make the BLTs so good, so remarkable; but I can tell you that you won’t be disappointed if you try one. They are brimful  with bright green leaf lettuce, a generous serving of perfectly crisped bacon, and big, beautiful tomato slices that taste great even when tomatoes aren’t in season. I’m not sure how they manage that.

And, of course, there’s mayo, and, yes, it’s probably Duke’s, which is a veritable institution down south.

The bread, made fresh daily at The Bread Shop is nearby Pittsboro, is great, too. My preference, sunflower, is another North Carolina institution. There are other possibilities, including a gluten-free option. You can add on to your BLT if you prefer—that Southern invention, pimiento cheese, or avocado, for example. In my humble opinion, however, adding anything to a Merritt’s BLT is gilding the lily.

And here’s another reason to visit Merritt’s. If you time it just right, you can enjoy some fantastic old-time fiddlin’, pickin’, and singin’. Check Merritt’s website—link above—or Facebook page to find out what’s going on.

merritts

Nothing fancy—just good things to eat.

merritts crew

The gang you can thank for those BLTs.

The pile on the closet floor

This post is not for the faint of heart. It is about that awful moment of reckoning, typically occurring as you face your closet, when you realize that everything has started to go irretrievably south.

Advancing age is not without its blessings, but appearance isn’t one of them. We droop. In multiple places. Even if our weight is reasonable and we exercise zealously, we droop.

It isn’t as much about weight (though it certainly can be) as it is about shape. My godmother, who is a pretty spiffy 94, petite, erect, and trim, has become downright phobic about clothes shopping because nothing fits her. That’s crazy, but I get it. Clothes shopping isn’t fun any more, and I’m a LOT younger than she is, as she graciously reminds me with some frequency.

I truly believe that I’ve become more patient and mellow with each passing year, but neither quality is likely to manifest when I’m trying to find something to wear. I’m recalling my old friend Cathy, in the comic strip of the same name. I couldn’t’ find the strip online, but I have a very vivid recollection of Cathy in a multi-mirrored dressing room, throwing a tantrum worthy of a two-year-old, shrieking and jumping up and down feverishly on the pile of rejected bathing suits she’s hurled to the floor.

I can relate. Cathy is all of us. Just ask me how many times I change clothes when I’m going out—to church, to a work appointment, to dinner, or—God forbid—to a high school reunion.

It’s almost worse when I’m forced to shop for something new. Although I adore dresses, I’ve pretty much given them up because what fits above the waist definitely does not fit below. I’ve tried A-lines and felt like one of those old-fashioned clothes pin bags: narrow at the top and wide at the bottom. [Does anyone remember clothespin bags? Or clothespins? Probably not.] I hold no hope of ever finding a dress I like that doesn’t require more than its weight in gold in alterations… and a capable tailor to do them, which seems like another thing of the past, at least in my neighborhood.

This sorry state of affairs, for all intents and purposes, leaves me pretty much up the creek (you know which one) without a paddle.

Yet I know there must be designers out there in the ether who know how to dress a woman who is not as lithe and willowy as she once was, in something that has neither elastic nor Velcro®, actually has a shape, and is definitely NOT Boho. Been there, done that, don’t want the T-shirt.

If that designer is YOU, hit me up, and let’s talk.